Perched high up in a settlement above the Kochi Prefecture town of Yusuhara, the Arcadian surroundings couldn’t be more perfect to catch up with author and Japanologist Alex Kerr to discuss the continued relevance of his 1996 breakout title, “Lost Japan.”

Originally published in Japanese in 1993 under the title “Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzo,” the English edition was first released by Lonely Planet in 1996 and then again by Penguin in 2015.

“Lost Japan” is a combination of warning bell for the disappearance of a way of life that was both beautiful and ecologically friendly, and a deep dive into aspects of Japanese culture that are often closed off to all but the innermost of circles. Over the past 25 years, has anything changed?

“Lost Japan” initially came from a place of concern, as Kerr observed that ways of living and landscapes were being changed simply to fulfill governmental budgets, and many of the fine arts of Japan were being lost as depopulation and an emphasis on a more “convenient” life took hold.

“In a traditional society, the sudden arrival of modernity can be very destructive, as suddenly the ways people used to do things appear irrelevant,” Kerr says.

Thatched houses such as “Chiiori” — the 300-year-old farmhouse in Tokushima Prefecture’s Iya Valley that Kerr bought and restored — were generally considered “poor and dirty.”

Twenty-five years later, Kerr has witnessed a number of major societal changes.

“First of all, depopulation. It was just starting when I wrote (“Lost Japan”), but it’s now a countrywide issue,” Kerr says. “We have also seen a massive change in the role of non-Japanese people in society. For most of (Japan’s) history, (foreign residents) were irrelevant, but there are now a number of expats playing important roles in preserving traditional arts. This is great, as the older generation of craftspeople sometimes find it hard to rise above old rules and techniques. Outsiders come in with a great respect for the craft but also have a sense of freedom to play around a bit with tradition, bringing in modernization that makes the arts relevant again.”

However, the biggest change the author has seen in the country is the tourism boom, with both its positive and negative impact.

“Tourism has transformed Japan and has woken up many towns to see that the old houses that they thought of as a burden are considered beautiful by visitors,” he says. “In many places it has been a true saving angel, as visitors bring income, are a new market for traditional crafts that were dying out and revive local food industries as well.”

Unfortunately, the effect was not exclusively positive.

“Like any industry, (tourism) has its toxic byproducts,” he says. “The bureaucracies involved are still asleep, and the lack of management of tourist numbers causes destruction of the environment and community life in many areas.”

Author Alex Kerr chats with washi maker Rogier UItenbogaart at Kamikoya in Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Author Alex Kerr chats with washi maker Rogier UItenbogaart at Kamikoya in Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

Kerr’s once-abandoned farmhouse is presented as a character in its own right in “Lost Japan,” with the author even referring to it by name several times during our conversation.

“When I bought and restored Chiiori back then, people thought I was really weird … although my neighbors were friendly and nice about it,” he says with a laugh.

Over the past 25 years, boosted by the tourism boom, the restoration and preservation of farmhouses, townhouses and other traditional structures has turned into a new national pastime, as a quick internet or YouTube search confirms.

“But even so, with so many villages being left behind as the aging population passes away, for each building brought back to life there are 10 that fall into ruin,” Kerr says.

Kerr has since gone on to save dozens of houses nationwide, keeping the beauty and framework of each building while retrofitting them for the 21st century and making them comfortable.

There is a term from Japanese tea ceremonies, mitate, which means using an object in a different way to renew its meaning. This is what Kerr brings to the buildings he restores.

“This is normal in Europe but when I first explained this concept in Japan, people found it unbelievable. I don’t want to preserve these houses as museum pieces,” says Kerr, who believes that making changes to fit modern needs is the secret to making traditional homes appealing for new generations.

Mitate is also the secret to bringing back life to towns facing depopulation,” he says.

Author Alex Kerr practices calligraphy at Washi Studio Kamikoya in Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Author Alex Kerr practices calligraphy at Washi Studio Kamikoya in Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

There are glimmers of hope amid the gloom, as some towns with vision are embracing their past and attempting new experiments. In addition to his farmhouse in the Iya Valley, Kerr also highlights Kamiyama, Taketa, Onomichi and, in particular, Yusuhara.

“Yusuhara was an early adopter, and walking through town the combination of respect for the old and cutting-edge is clear,” he says.

The town of just under 3,500 people is dotted with modern buildings designed by architect Kengo Kuma that are made with local cedar to blend into the landscape.

The power lines along the main street, fronted with attractive homes, are buried so they don’t block the mountain views, and much of that power comes from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

With three schools, a hospital and all necessary amenities (including a coffee shop and several restaurants), it is clear why people are interested in living in this revitalized community.

“The sad reality is that towns can compete with major cities, but they need to make advanced decisions and have vision,” he says. “There are plenty of young people who want to return to the countryside, but towns have to make some changes, both large and small, that makes it possible for them to do so. Towns that adapt, like Yusuhara, will thrive. Those that can’t get out of the rut will not.”

Kerr currently divides his time between Japan and Bangkok, a second home that he captured in his most recent title, “Another Bangkok: Reflections on the City” (July 2021). Other recent works include “Finding the Heart Sutra” (November 2020) and a book in Japanese titled “Nippon Junrei” (“Japan Pilgrimage”), which focuses on hidden hamlets around the country.

He is currently in the process of writing a new book tentatively titled “Trees of Japan” — one of his favorite topics — that will show how the natural landscape of the country has changed over time through the context of trees.

But the work closest to his heart remains the Iya Valley, where he hopes to bring life back to the depopulated area.

“I want to bring in the culture and nature hippies,” he says, “people who want to learn and contribute, who have skills that can give our community new life. Come be my neighbor.”

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